Church ministers criticise Highland Council for increasing funeral costs

"The one thing that is certain in life is that we are all going to die and Highland Council appears to see in that certainty, a never ending financial seam it can tap." Rev Susan Brown.

Church of Scotland leaders in the Highlands have accused the local authority of exploiting the grief of bereaved families by backing huge increases in funeral costs.

The Rev Ronald Johnstone, clerk to the Presbytery of Caithness, made the remark after it emerged that councillors have supported plans to increase the cost of burials from £638 in 2015-16 to £970 in 2016-17 and the price of cremations to £638 to £849.

The cost of a lair purchase will increase from £566 to £753 in 2016-17.

According to a Highland Council report, there are approximately 1,600 burials, 1,000 cremations and 1,100 lair purchases per annum.

Mr Johnstone said: "I have no objection to a reasonable charge being made for provision of a service.

"Obviously they need to raise revenue but I object profoundly to exploiting grief."

Church of Scotland ministers do not charge for conducting funerals and the local council's sole crematorium is in Inverness.

The Rev Susan Brown of Dornoch Cathedral said: "The one thing that is certain in life is that we are all going to die and Highland Council appears to see in that certainty, a never ending financial seam it can tap.

"Living beyond the Highland capital we can choose not to go there by car and pay the parking fees but we can't choose not to die.

"And the biggest problem is that the hike in costs is going to affect disproportionately those at the lower end of the income bracket and those furthest from Inverness.

"At a time which is already highly stressful and emotional for people, the council are undoubtedly going to heap the burdens of debt and worry onto the shoulders of the newly bereaved and leave a few with the prospect of perhaps even walking away from their loved ones because they cannot afford to give them even the most basic of send-offs.

"People both want and need to do the decent thing for their loved ones as the last act of love for them and the council seems intent on making it so much more difficult for a significant number of people to be able to do that.

"It is at best a naïve move and at worst cynical.

"Since shopping around is not an option, there is no escape from this"

The Rev Trevor Hunt, clerk of the Presbytery of Inverness, said a "significant number of people" were affected by so-called funeral poverty.

He has been instructed to write to Highland Council to express "great concern" for all those affected by rising burial and cremation charges in the hope that they can be kept as low as possible to counteract the growing misery of funeral poverty.

The deliverance states: "Where funeral poverty is an issue, urge congregations to reduce or waive their funeral charges where possible, and bear in mind that ministers in charges should not accept a fee for taking a funeral."

An independent report on funeral poverty was published last month and found funeral director and local authority costs should be more consistent and bereavement support more widely available.

The report by John Birrell, chair of the Scottish Working Group on Funeral Poverty, and Citizens Advice Scotland, highlighted factors that contribute to funeral poverty and called on the UK and Scottish Governments, the funeral industry, local authorities and others, to take action.

The report's recommendations included ensuring social security funeral payments meet the real costs of a funeral, parity in burial and cremation charges charged by local authorities, licensing of funeral directors and a new national 'Scottish Funeral Bond' to standardise costs and allow more people to save for their own funeral.

It stated: "For those without resources, there are stories of families holding collections, running fund-raising events, and launching crowd-funding appeals to help cover the cost of burials or cremations.

The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council, said: "'Every week the Church of Scotland supports hundreds of families as they mourn the death of someone they love.

"The death of a loved one is a tragedy for any one of us, but the drastically rising cost of funerals is an additional burden to people who are already at their most vulnerable.

" For those who cannot meet this cost, current government support is grossly insufficient, forcing people into debt and causing some to turn to money-lenders.

"Scottish Government and Local Authority budgets may be squeezed, but they cannot be balanced on the backs of those who mourn.'

The Church of Scotland is working with funeral directors to try and encourage them to sign the Fair Funerals pledge.